Where to begin?
We began in Nantes 146 days ago. Back then we had a canoe but no tans, short hair and no idea about what we would experience. After 136 days our canoeing journey was over: we had covered over 4500km on the water but rough water made Istanbul by river-canoe an impossibility. The last 10 days we have dragged our bodies and our bags over 350km. Yesterday we finished.
We spent less than 10% of the whole trip walking, but even set against the dangers of canoeing, our final day was one of the hardest. But we chose to make it that way. We wanted walking to remain a short part of our journey; we wanted to maintain the ethos of adventure that canoeing had created; and we wanted it all to be over.
We awoke earlier than ever. Our Casios were beeping at 4.30am. We had our breakfasts in the tent and were marching across fields towards the dimly lit motorway as the 6am call to prayer was reverberating around Turkey.
On a Sunday morning that motorway was quiet and calm. The sun slowly rose to present us the Istanbul skyline as we slowly got rid of our early morning hats and gloves. From therein, with blisters gnawing at our feet and bags digging into our backs, my memories are of our regular stops rather than of the relentless trudge through Istanbul.
By 8am we had made it to the Mediterranean Sea. Our second waypoint of the day on the tracker coincided with a trendy suburb where we bought Turkish breakfast pastries from a conveniently placed cafe and then ate them on the move. From now on we were following a main road: either directly on the D100's hard shoulder or snaking along parallel to this motorway where our gps mapping allowed.
At 9.00 we sat at the top of a hill. Having followed a slipway parallel to the motorway, we took the opportunity to eat our apples and refill our water bottles from a mosque and graveyard. We watched quietly as a woman moaned in grief, and kept quiet about how successfully we felt the first few hours had gone. Half an hour later, after again dipping into a valley before following the hill steeply upwards, a security guard volunteered us cups of cold water as Jimmy changed to shorts and we sweated in a heat fueled by city smog.
Next we stopped in the middle of a housing estate. Winding through tiny streets, cutting through car parks, climbing over motorway bollards; we slowly made our way in the direction of the city centre but off of the motorway. As we dropped our bags on the curb to slump on them, a woman walking past asked us our nationality and handed me an apple.
An hour or so later we had lunch. In true canoeing the continent style we made the most of an ugly situation. With the hard shoulder of the motorway the quickest way across a bay dominated by a sewage plant, we stopped on a grassy bank and, surrounded by trees, compared our current lunchtime spot to a few of the more exotic that we've sat in.
As the afternoon wore on the streets became more congested. That first hour after lunch saw us hustling through a busy high street and then implausibly dodging our way through a crowded bazaar - paddles held at our sides and squeezing our bags between queues of shoppers. We were getting more tired, but the shouts of traders and the smells of fast food and spices kept the day feeling fresh.
We were marching at a determined pace. Bent double, limping and obviously foreign, as we made our way through crowded areas we were subject to laughter and jibes as much as friendly support and free food. But, we had a mission and its completion felt very close. While I would respond to an angry beep or ridicule by trying harder, it was the interactions with friendly Turks that really spurred us on. From the homeless man who gave me a high 5, to the street cleaner who we overtook going up a hill, the bin man who wanted to know our names or just the dozens of people we nodded at and said Selam; the residents of Istanbul most often lived up to the famous tales of Eastern hospitality.
However, as darkness fell and we reached the time at which we would have stopped on any normal day, our spirits also dropped. We were forced to take a diversion after a road closure making the day an hour longer. A cooking gas canister jutting from one bag caused unbearable rubbing. With each minute that ticked by, the arbitrary point within the final ring road which we had chosen to finish at seemed more and more pointless: we were in Istanbul, it was dark, so why were we still ploughing on, often lost, through an industrial estate?
With our water bottles empty, the caffeine gel we had carried as a memento from the Loire now drained, and the tracker showing us within the ring road; there seemed little point in continuing. The problem was that we both wanted to finish somewhere worthy of our 5 month journey.
Then we saw a sign towards a panorama point. After daring a short jaunt through a motorway tunnel in the dark, that panorama point turned out to be the 500 year old city wall. Unequivocally, getting within the city wall meant that we were in Istanbul. We'd been in Istanbul all day, but now we had something set in stone.
From there it was the small problem of getting a good photo to round it off. Unfortunately, sunsets don't grow on trees, so we settled on a kebab shop: an international emblem of Turkey and somewhere where we could finally have dinner.
We took our photo and limped in. We ate and limped out. We took a taxi to a hostel and found out it had closed down. We sat on the curb and were directed to a second hostel around the corner. We dumped our bags and sat with the cafe owner who had helped us. We showed our photos and then our blisters, we drank Turkish beer and made incoherent phone calls home.
After 13 hours of walking, we were stopping. Finishing our day and finishing our journey. Canoeing the continent was about the journey and not the destination, but it's good to finally be in Istanbul.